A private sector movement may speed the adoption of renewable power sources, Crane said at a round-table dinner at the Washington offices of the Atlantic magazine yesterday.
“Who are we going to look to lead on this?” Crane asked. “For the first time in American history, could we have a social movement that’s actually triggered by corporations?”
Political gridlock in Washington means the private sector, with billions to spend, may play a role in transforming the U.S. energy infrastructure, said attendees including former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and Eric Spiegel, chief executive officer of Siemens AG’s U.S. unit.
Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s tracking of the amount of energy the products it’s built use around the world and Coca-Cola Co.’s goal to return as much water to communities and nature as it uses by 2020 are examples of leading initiatives.
“The resources that corporate America has at its disposal are amazing,” Crane said. “We need a bottom-up revolution.”
The company has become the largest solar developer in the U.S., even as it gets more than 90 percent of its revenue from conventional energy sales.
NRG, which produces enough power to light about 42 million homes, owns utilities and about 53 gigawatts of power plants, making it the fourth-largest carbon emitter in the U.S., by his estimates. He said he wants that to change.
“We look to our leaders, mainly our leaders in Washington, to show us our way on a lot of things.” Yet the city’s “paralysis” means “there’s not going to be anyone showing the way.”
New Jersey’s Whitman, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush administration, agreed that the current gridlock in Washington means that national policy will have a hard time offering solutions to large environmental problems.
The public “gets” climate change, she said, recalling the two weeks that her farm was without power in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “The modern environment movement did not come down from the top, it came from the bottom up.”
Legislation such as the Clean Water Act was triggered by “people who were sick and tired of rivers spontaneously combusting and bad-air-quality days and kids getting sick,” Whitman said, referring to the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River that spurred the act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the creation of federal and state environment protection agencies, or EPAs.
Crane sees his biggest competitor in Google Inc. (GOOG), he said, referring to the Internet search giant’s recent movements along with other technology companies into the energy sector, robbing utilities of revenue. “Google is who concerns me more of any company.” After that, it’s Home Depot Inc.
In most places, the customers don’t have a choice of who they buy their electricity from. That’s changing with the rise of rooftop solar power and choices in energy providers, and may involve natural gas-produced power at the home, Crane said.
Crane is concerned electricity may get “so distributed and so simplified that our biggest competitor becomes Home Depot,” where people could buy panels and put them on their rooftops themselves, he said.
“You just can’t believe if you’ve been in the power industry your whole life as I’ve been how simple solar photo-voltaic is,” he said.
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